The weekly report from the world’s birdwatching capital… by Seymore Thanu
You say you want to see a hawk? Okay. They are not mythical creatures. You don’t need a pure heart or the strength of 10. You won’t have to sell your soul, take out a mortgage, go to the oracle, walk barefoot over hot coals, fill out a form, say “I do,” or eat live worms on camera.
All you have to do is go over to the Cape May Point State Park. Stand on the Hawk Watch Platform. Look up.
Okay, maybe it’s not quite that easy. There are certain prerequisites. Dos and don’ts that will make finding a real live bird of prey almost as easy as drawing breath. For starters, you should know what a hawk looks like. This is important because there are lots of birds in Cape May and only a fraction of them are hawks.
Hawks come in a variety of sizes; from American Kestrel (a robin-sized falcon) to Bald Eagle (big). They are mostly pale below, mostly brown above. Usually, especially in flatlands like Cape May, you see the below parts. They like to soar in circles. They are often harassed by smaller birds.
Also, there are other birds that are often confused for hawks when in flight. Remember that gulls have pointy wings that droop; herons and egrets flap a lot.
If you want to know what a hawk looks like, stop by the Cape May Bird Observatory and look in a book that has pictures of hawks in flight. There are dozens.
Consider binoculars. Big hawks are just that – big. Close they may not be, and when they are flying above you, the higher they are, the smaller they seem. Binoculars will vault the distance and confer supernatural intimacy with a bird of prey.
Now here’s the tricky part. You have to pick a good time and good condition for hawk watching. Hawks are not everywhere all the time, unless you happen to happily be in Cape May from mid-August to mid-November, when hawks are common. In fact, Cape May is one of the best places in North America to see migrating hawks. It is what is called a “leading line.” Southbound hawks get caught in the land funnel and directed to its terminus. That terminus is Cape May Point, which is the end of the terrestrial line for a group of birds that mostly likes to migrate over land.
Also, you should plan to conduct your quest beginning about 9-9:30am, just after your coffee has perked, because this is also when the morning’s first thermals start perking. Thermals, rising bubbles of air, are what hawks use to ride aloft. If you start watching before thermals are strong and widespread, you will be able to see hawks when they are relatively low. By 10:30am, most hawks are waaay up there. Specks in the sky. Hard to find. Hard to identify. Not exactly satisfying.
There is another rush hour in the afternoon. Around 3:30-5pm, thermal production has diminished. Hawks are lower and many will be hunting. Your chances are also much better if you pick a day after a cold front has passed. The north-to-northwest winds ferry birds down the peninsula and over Cape May Point.
There are some more tricks. Use your binoculars to scan. Pan them across the horizon with the treetops in the lower part of the glass. Work the instrument slowly until you map a 180 degree section of sky; from the sky over one end of the platform to the next. Now raise the instrument and work your way back again, but this time with your binoculars raised just above the swath of sky you just studied.
Another trick. Look at the bottoms of clouds. Not only do hawks stand out against the white base, they are drawn to clouds. Puffy white clouds are the terminal stage of a thermal. You can’t see thermals. But you can see the cloud they spawn as the water vapor in the air reaches a point where it condenses and forms a cloud.
If you go to the Hawk Watch Platform after September 1, there will be people there to point hawks out to visitors. If you’re lucky, they might even let you look through their binoculars.
The Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO), is THE place for anything to do with nature. Located at 701 East Lake Drive overlooking lovely Lake Lily in Cape May Point, the center is open 9:30-4:30pm daily. Ask any of our staff or volunteers – they are always glad to help with anything you need. Check out the newest books (including Bayshore Summer by what’s-his-name) and some great new merchandise – including our exclusive CMBO logo jewelry, clothing, totes, and more. Check our sightings log to find what’s being seen, pick up a bargain from the vintage books section, look at some Charley Harper merchandise, or just browse. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be in the area, visit us online www.BirdCapeMay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away.
Seymore Thanu is none other than New Jersey’s own Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. He has written for virtually every birding publication and for The New York Times.